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Changer of Worlds


David Weber

Branch Leaper paused midway down the long picketwood limb, and his ears went up in surprise as he tasted the first hint of the approaching mind glow.

Mind glows, he corrected himself as he realized two People made their unannounced way along the broad highway of branches towards him. There was something very familiar about one of the mind glows, yet Branch Leaper could not quite decide what it was. He ought to be able to, and he knew it, and yet . . .

He sat bolt upright on his rearmost pair of limbs, fluffy tail curled about his toes, and peered in the direction of the oncoming mind glows. They were very powerful, he noted respectfully, and he tasted the overlaid harmonies of a mated pair. The female glow was the stronger of the two, of course. It almost always was, and yet it had to be very powerful to be stronger in this case. That was what baffled him about the elusively familiar taste of the male mind glow. He ought to recognize so strong a mind glow if he had ever encountered it even briefly, yet it was as if its very strength was what made it unfamiliar. Besides, he knew all mated pairs of Bright Water Clan, and the unseen travelers were not from among them.

His whiskers twitched in perplexity. It was not unheard of for a mated pair to travel through a strange clan's territory, but good manners usually required that they warn that clan of their presence. Not that the People took such journeys amiss—except, perhaps, he admitted, during times of great famine at the very end of the cold days of a turning, when even a single pair of additional hunters might make the difference between life or death for the clan's kittens. But that was rare, and usually it was simply a matter of courtesy.

He sat a moment longer, then moved to the nearest picketwood bole and flowed smoothly up it. He found a comfortable spot in the fork of a branch and settled down to wait. The strangers were approaching quickly, and his wait should not be long.

Nor was it. The People were less concerned about measuring things like the passage of time than were the two-legged humans with whom they shared their world, but Branch Leaper judged that no more than two or three hands of the human's "minutes" could have elapsed before the pair upon whom he waited came into sight. They were moving rapidly, the male leading with the air of one completely familiar with the territory about him, and Branch Leaper's tail kinked straight up behind him as his eyes combined with the taste of the newcomer's mind glow to bring true recognition at last.

<Laughs Brightly!> he mind-called. <We did not know you had returned! Nor—> his mind voice chuckled wryly, despite a genuine sense of shock <—that you had found a mate!>

The male paused, as did his mate, and looked about alertly. His eyes found Branch Leaper almost instantly, and the Bright Water scout tasted the matching recognition in his mind glow.

<I know you did not know, Branch Leaper,> he replied, his answering mind voice laced with ironic amusement. He made no reference to Branch Leaper's shock, but the scout knew the other tasted the embarrassment he had felt at revealing his astonishment. But Laughs Brightly had bonded to a human over two hands of turnings ago, and those who had bonded to humans almost never mated. They might well partner temporarily when they were able to return to their home clans' ranges, but the adoption bond itself almost always precluded the very possibility of a true mating. True, there were very occasional exceptions to that rule, yet Branch Leaper knew that Laughs Brightly's human was only rarely here on the world of the People, which ought to have made it impossible for Laughs Brightly even to meet a female of the People, far less mate with one! No wonder Branch Leaper had not recognized his mind glow, for the possibility that Laughs Brightly might have taken a mate since last they met had never so much as crossed the Bright Water scout's mind.

But perhaps the fact that he had done so explained the tremendous, unexpected power of his mind glow, Branch Leaper mused. As Laughs Brightly and his new mate came still closer, Branch Leaper was forced to reduce his own sensitivity, much as if he were squinting mental eyes against a blinding light. It was almost painful, at least until he could become accustomed to it, and he felt his surprise at discovering Laughs Brightly had mated fading into sheer awe as the power of those fused mind glows washed over him. Those who bonded to the humans normally found their mind voices strengthened at least as greatly as those who found mates among the People, but Branch Leaper had never come within mind voice range of any of the People who had established both bondings!

Or not, at least, until today.

<Forgive me, older brother,> Branch Leaper said contritely after a moment. <I did not mean to seem so surprised. It was simply that I thought you off-world with Dances on Clouds. It did not occur to me that you might meet another of the People.>

<Or that one who has bonded to a human would take a mate, either, younger brother,> Laughs Brightly replied wryly. <Well, I suppose I should not blame you for that. I certainly never thought that I would mate, and even if the thought had come to me, I would have assumed I would find a female who could stand me only here upon our own world. But—> He flipped his ears ironically, and Branch Leaper felt himself bleeking a soft laugh at the rich humor of that powerful mind voice.

<But I have forgotten the courtesy Swift Darter pounded into me as a kitten,> the scout said after a moment, his mind glow contrite as he turned to Laughs Brightly's new mate. <Welcome to Bright Water's range,> he told his new sister. <May you hunt well and often among us, sister-of-choice.>

<Thanks to you who greets me, younger brother,> she replied with exquisite formality, and, despite himself, Branch Leaper felt his ears and tail alike go up as the crystal purity of her mind voice rolled through him. No! It could not be! No clan would have allowed—

<I am called Golden Voice among the People of Sun Leaf Clan,> she told him, and he managed to flick his ears in acknowledgment despite his disbelief. He gazed at her for long moments, tasting the half-amused, half-resigned tolerance in her mind glow as he tried to grapple with who and what she was. Clearly she had anticipated such a reaction . . . and so must Laughs Brightly, Branch Leaper recognized. He did not know the older treecat as well as he might have, for Laughs Brightly was home too infrequently, but he did know the older scout well enough to realize how he would have responded to such emotions about his mate if he had not prepared himself for them ahead of time.

A fresh ripple of embarrassment flickered through Branch Leaper, but this time he did not apologize. There was no true need, since Golden Voice and Laughs Brightly obviously both knew exactly what had sparked it. Besides, he rather doubted he could find a way to apologize without making things still worse, for nothing he had ever been taught by Swift Darter or any of the older clan elders suggested how to go about responding properly to such an unheard of situation.

So instead of apologizing, he merely gave himself a quick shake, knowing they tasted the unvoiced apology in his mind glow anyway, and returned his attention to Laughs Brightly.

<You are bound to meet with the elders?> The question was superfluous, since that was obviously Laughs Brightly's and Golden Voice's intention, but it was a way to get past the potential insult of his disbelief.

<We are,> Laughs Brightly confirmed. <Would you accompany us?>

<Gladly,> Branch Leaper replied sincerely, and turned to lead the way down the highway of the picketwood to the central nesting place of Bright Water Clan.

* * *

Branch Leaper had come to grips with his astonishment by the time they reached their destination. He remained uncertain what he thought of the unprecedented choices Golden Voice clearly had made in her life, but the humming vibrancy of the bond between her and Laughs Brightly burned in the back of his brain like bright fire. As he became accustomed to it, its almost painful intensity shifted and changed, transmuting into something just as powerful yet less fierce, a welcoming beacon and not the blinding light it had first appeared. And as he adjusted to it, he also tasted more of its subtle nuances. He was only a scout, no mind teacher or memory singer, yet even he could taste the strange, unending strain of sorrow which hovered always in their shared mind glows. It came from Golden Voice, he realized. A sense of bereavement, of unendurable sadness and wrenching loss. It was not at the surface of her mind glow, and he rather doubted that she was even fully aware of it, for it had the flavor of an old wound—one which might never fully heal, but which one had no choice but to live with.

It seemed wrong to taste such a thing in such a brilliant mind glow, and yet, as he tasted it, Branch Leaper slowly realized that in an odd way he doubted he would ever be able to define even for himself, that sorrow was part of what made this pair glow so brightly. It was as if the sorrow, the sense of loss, had somehow tempered the steel of the joy they took in one another, as if the knowledge of what Golden Voice had lost made them even more aware of all that they now had.

And whatever Branch Leaper or anyone else might think of the propriety of Golden Voice's having mated with anyone, he knew no one who ever tasted their bond could ever doubt its depth and power. Surely anything which produced such brilliance and joy in those who shared it could not be wrong, whatever he might think of the decisions which had led her into a position in which it might be forged. And even if that had not been so, the People's most ancient traditions made the bonding of mates an intensely private thing. No one could avoid tasting their mind glows, but the choice to mate, and who to mate with, was one no other of the People—not even a clan's elders—had the right to challenge or question. Which was as it ought to be, of course. It was merely that all the rest of the People's customs insisted that Golden Voice should never have—

He shook that thought off once more, with less difficulty this time—no doubt a sign that he had grown more accustomed to it—and led the way towards the tallest tree at the heart of Bright Water's central nesting place. More adult members of the clan appeared as he, Laughs Brightly, and Golden Voice crossed the interlacing picketwood branches towards their destination, and he tasted their surprise, mirroring his own as they saw Laughs Brightly and realized it was his mind glow they had tasted.

Branch Leaper's ears cocked wryly at some of the emotions he tasted. Laughs Brightly was enough older than he, and had adopted Dances on Clouds long enough ago, that Branch Leaper had never seen firsthand the pranks and jokes which had earned Laughs Brightly his name among the People, but he had heard sufficient tales of them to understand the naming. Now he tasted a certain resignation among some of his older clan mates as they absorbed the newfound strength of Laughs Brightly's mind glow and contemplated what he might be able to accomplish now. It was, perhaps, as well that he and Dances on Clouds were so seldom on the People's world!

They reached the tall tree, and, as always, Branch Leaper felt his pace slow, his manner become more sober and dignified. This tree had been the center of the Bright Water range for over ten hands of hands of turnings, longer even than the entire time the humans had been on the surface of the People's world. Fewer than two hands of clans could claim to have maintained the same range for so many turnings, and this tree had been the nesting place of some of the greatest mind singers of all the people, including Sings Truly herself. It was not the way of the People to feel awe of one another, for a race which could taste the mind glows and emotions—even the very thoughts—of its clan leaders and memory singers knew one another too well for that. Usually. Yet Branch Leaper always felt a deep, almost reverent awe whenever he ascended this tree and realized that his claws touched the same bark, the same wood, as those of the legendary Sings Truly and all of her successors.

Now he reached the high branch he sought and paused. The large nest of Bright Water Clan's current senior memory singer stood before him, and it would not be necessary for him to use the attention chime to announce his arrival. Wind of Memory sat before her nest's entrance, flanked by Songstress and Echo of Time, and almost two-thirds of the clan's elders had assembled with them. Clearly someone else had sent word of their coming ahead, for this was every one of the elders who had been present in the central nesting place, and their mind glows were gravely formal.

<Greetings, Branch Leaper,> Wind of Memory's musical mind voice was like the crystal sound of the "wind chimes" the humans had given the delighted People, and Branch Leaper flicked his ears in profoundly respectful acknowledgment. Yet even as he did so, he remembered the power and beauty of Golden Voice's mind voice.

<Greetings, Senior Singer. Elders,> he replied, including the assembled clan leaders in his response. <I was bound for the wide water below the tree hopper's dam when I met Laughs Brightly and his new mate.> He tasted the stir of the elders' interest as he confirmed what they must surely already have known. <When we met, of course, I returned hither to accompany our new sister-of-choice.>

<That was well done, younger brother,> Wind of Memory acknowledged gravely.

It had not been necessary, of course, but it had been only courteous. Under normal circumstances, Laughs Brightly would have become a member of Sun Leaf Clan, for it was customary for the male to become a member of his mate's clan on those rare occasions when People mated with anyone other than members of their own birth clans. But the fact that he and Golden Voice had journeyed to Bright Water Clan clearly suggested that they did not intend to follow custom in this matter—either, Branch Leaper thought dryly—and it did make a sort of sense. Laughs Brightly was bonded to Dances on Clouds, one of Death Fang's Bane's descendants, and Death Fang's Bane Clan's range bordered on Bright Water's. Of course, human clans did not consider their "ranges" (or their clans, for that matter) exactly as the People did, but the parallels were close enough. If Golden Voice was not bonded to a human herself, it would be reasonable for her to join the clan of her mate, if it was closer to her mate's human's clan, and Sun Leaf Clan was distant, indeed. But if she had chosen to come among a clan strange to her, it would have been discourteous in the extreme for Branch Leaper not to accompany her here to meet her new brothers and sisters. And elders. Especially elders. And especially in this case.

<I greet you, sister-of-choice,> Wind of Memory went on, turning to Laughs Brightly's new mate. <I had not expected Laughs Brightly to find a mate among the People, particularly given the strength of his bond to Dances on Clouds. Yet I taste the strength of the bond you share with him, and his mind glow has grown still stronger since last he was among us. It is a powerful bonding you share, and I wish you joy of it.>

<I thank you, Senior Singer,> Golden Voice replied, and Branch Leaper felt a shudder of shock ripple through the assembled elders and all the other members of Bright Water Clan who had followed them to Wind of Memory's nest as that incredible mind voice poured through them. Wind of Memory twitched bolt upright, her ears standing fully erect, and Songstress actually hissed beside her. Not in challenge, but in disbelief, for Golden Voice's mind voice sang in their minds with the pure, sweet power of one of the humans' great bells. It was easily more powerful than Wind of Memory's, yet Wind of Memory held her position as Bright Water's senior singer precisely because her own mind voice was so strong.

<You are the one they call Golden Voice!> Echo of Time blurted, startled into the exclamation. Golden Voice turned bright green eyes to her, cocking her head to one side, and Echo of Time's gaze fell, her mind glow burning with consternation. The disapproval of her mind voice could not have been greater if she had made it so on purpose, and her humiliation at her own bad manners was blazingly apparent. Yet so was the fact that she was not at all convinced that her disapproval was unmerited, and Branch Leaper tasted echoes of the same emotions from other members of the clan.

<I am, Memory Singer,> Golden Voice replied after a long moment. Her own mind voice showed no trace of anger or resentment, only calm self-assurance and possibly just a flicker of resigned amusement, as if she were well accustomed to such reactions. Which, Branch Leaper reflected, she undoubtedly was.

<Forgive my surprise, sister-of-choice.> Echo of Time's apology was sincere, but it was for her own bad manners in failing to control her reaction and not an admission that her disapproval was wrong.

<Why?> Golden Voice asked simply. <Were our positions reversed, I might well feel as you do, Memory Singer. Certainly—> she allowed herself a dry mental chuckle <—my own sire and dam were . . . perplexed by my choices. And as for my own clan's memory singers—!>

She flicked the tip of her tail as a human might have rolled her eyes, and Wind of Memory surprised them all—including herself, Branch Leaper suspected—with a bleek of laughter. All eyes turned to her, and she flicked her ears.

<I have no doubt they found you "perplexing," sister-of-choice,> the senior memory singer agreed wryly. <Indeed, I have received their memory song of your decision, and I have always been amazed that they did not argue more strenuously with you.>

<I suppose I should be also,> Golden Voice admitted. <I found them quite strenuous enough, Senior Singer, yet I was only a kitten at the time, and it is the way of the young both to be certain of their own course and to feel much abused when their elders do not share their certainty.>

<Indeed. Though I see you have grown quite elderly since that time,> Wind of Memory observed in a dust-dry mind voice, and it was Golden Voice's turn to bleek in laughter, for she was very young. Less than half Laughs Brightly's age, Branch Leaper estimated, though it was hard to be certain. Like all females, she was much smaller than the average male, and her dappled brown and gray pelt did not boast the tail rings which indicated a male's age. Both of those things made estimating her age difficult, and the fact that she was so . . . different from any other female he had ever met only complicated matters still further.

<I am not yet ancient, Senior Singer,> Golden Voice admitted, <yet I do not regret my choices. And Sun Leaf Clan had a full two hands of well-trained memory singers. It was not as though they truly needed yet another, and the hunger for the human mind glow was upon me.> She gave another ear flick, meeting Wind of Memory's gaze squarely. <We do not deny the need to taste the human mind glow to our hunters, or our scouts, or to any other male. And other females have bonded with the humans, if not a great many. It would have been wrong and unjust of my elders to deny me the right to bond simply because I had the potential of a memory singer.>

<You did not have "the potential," sister-of-choice,> Songstress said, speaking up for the first time. <You are a memory singer, whether you have claimed or accepted the duties of one or not, and this is something you know as well as I. If it would have been wrong or unjust of Sun Leaf Clan's elders and memory singers to deny you the right to bond with a human, was it not also wrong of you to refuse the responsibility to your clan which comes with the mind voice and the depth of memory you own?>

A mental hush hovered at the memory singer's forthright demand. Among humans, Branch Leaper had been told, such a query would have been considered an insult, or at least insufferably rude, but that was something he had never truly understood. Among the People, there was no real point in not asking it, or in trying to conceal the emotions which went with it, for there was no way one of the People could not know that another harbored that question or those feelings. There were questions the People simply did not ask of one another, but they were few and fell into areas which had been considered deeply private in even the oldest of memory songs. Personally, Branch Leaper had always assumed that that was because the People's ancestors had learned the hard way that those areas—like the reasons a couple chose to mate—were the most likely to provoke conflict. A people who heard one another's thoughts and tasted one another's mind glows could not possibly have put all potential areas of conflict off limits, however, and outside those which had been sanctified by iron custom, the People addressed one another with a frankness which would have been devastating in any mind-blind society.

Yet for all that, the challenge and disapproval of Bright Water's second ranking memory singer hung before Golden Voice like a set of bared fangs. The younger female turned her calm regard on Songstress for several long breaths, then flicked the tip of her tail in acknowledgment.

<I am what—and who—I am, Memory Singer,> she said then. <I did not choose the strength of voice or mind glow or memory I possess, just as I did not choose the need to taste the human mind glow. And I have paid for my choices with sorrow as well as joy.>

A stab of grief ripped through her mind glow, the subtle sorrow Branch Leaper had tasted from the first exploding to the surface. It was only for an instant, yet all who tasted it flinched before it. It was a memory singer's grief, with all the vibrant power of a memory singer's mind behind it, and in that searing instant all within the reach of her mind voice were one with her, sharing the agony of loss and bereavement as her adopted human died and the bitter knife of death slashed the delicate binding and interweaving which had made Golden Voice and her human both individuals and one being. It was as if the very sun above them had exploded, destroying all the world—not in fire, but in freezing cold and utter desolation, and Branch Leaper cowered down on all six limbs, pressing his belly to the branch beneath him as the perfect reproduction of that moment of loss and torment took him by the throat. He tasted Golden Voice's need to follow her person into darkness, the need to cling to his mind glow's glory wherever it went . . . and the desperate need to escape the dreadful emptiness his death had left in her soul and mind.

Yet there was more than simple despair in that shared moment. There was another mind glow, one which clung to her even more desperately than she had hungered for the peace of nonbeing. It had gripped her fiercely, refusing to release her and blazing against the darkness. It was not like her human's mind glow had been. For all its power, it was weaker, almost muted—a subtler beauty, in more delicately blended colors, without the unbridled strength of the human mind glows. Yet also unlike the human mind glows, it engaged hers on all levels, merging with it, anchoring itself within her even as she had anchored herself within it.

It had been Laughs Brightly, Branch Leaper realized, and turned his awed gaze upon the older male. Weaker than a human mind glow though it might have been, still the sheer, raw power of his demand for Golden Voice to live had dwarfed anything a male should have been able to produce. Yet even as that sense of awe touched him, Branch Leaper wondered why he felt it. So far as he knew, never in all the history of People and humans had both halves of a mated pair also adopted humans . . . and never before had a female with the mind voice and mind glow of a memory singer bonded with any human. Laughs Brightly and Golden Voice had passed into territory none of the People had ever explored. No doubt it was only natural for them to discover things there which the People had never expected.

<Yes, you have paid,> Songstress agreed after a moment, but if her mind voice was a bit more subdued, there was no less disapproval in it. <Yet had you remained with Sun Leaf Clan as you ought to have, that price would never have been demanded of you.>

<No doubt that is true, Memory Singer. Yet the only way to avoid the price would have been to deny the joy from whence it sprang, and it is the decisions I have made—and the prices I have paid—which make me what I am today. You say that I am a memory singer, and perhaps there is truth in that. Yet I have also bonded with a human and tasted the beauty and power of his mind glow . . . and the anguish of its loss. And I have mated with Laughs Brightly and known the joy and the glory of becoming one with another who can taste and be tasted in return. And I have borne our kittens and tasted the soft magic of their mind glows in my womb and welcomed them into the world as they opened their eyes upon its sunlight for the very first time. I have known and done these things, Memory Singer. Not simply in the memory songs I have tasted and made my own and sung for others.>

<And those of us who have not done those things, who can know them "simply" in the songs we taste and sing, are somehow less than you who have done them?> Songstress demanded.

<I did not say that, Memory Singer,> Golden Voice replied calmly, <nor do I think it.> Songstress glared at her for a moment, but then her tail flicked in acknowledgment. Golden Voice's mind glow was clear and bright, and Songstress tasted her sincerity as clearly as any other person present.

<I say only that I have known and done them myself,> Golden Voice continued. <It was by my own choice and will, yet I ask you this, Memory Singer. You have sung the songs of all of those who have bonded with humans, beginning with your own clan's Climbs Quickly and Death Fang's Bane. More of Bright Water Clan's scouts and hunters have bonded with humans than any other clan's, and you know the mind taste of Death Fang's Bane Clan, the bright light and power that beckons to People from all over this world. Had you been born with that same need, that same hunger to embrace the human mind glow, would you have refused it?>

<I would have thought of my responsibility to my clan,> Songstress retorted, but her gaze fell once more as she tasted Golden Voice's gentle rebuke. Songstress was hands of turnings older than Golden Voice, yet in that moment Golden Voice had somehow become by far the elder, and her mind voice was chiding.

<I, too, thought of my responsibilities, Memory Singer,> she said almost kindly. <Did you think I could not have done so? Yet that was not my question. I asked you if you would have refused the hunger for the human mind glow if it had come upon you.>

<I—> Songstress began, then hesitated. The moment of hesitation stretched out, and then it became something else. The memory singer met Golden Voice's eyes once more, her very silence an admission of the younger female's point, for she had tasted that hunger and need in the memory songs of others. As no one but a memory singer could, she had shared it and become one with it, and as such, she knew—as no one but a memory singer could—how impossible it was not to answer.

<I do not think I envy you, sister-of-choice,> Wind of Memory said into the silence. <Any memory singer knows the need to embrace the mind songs of the People, to hear and feel and taste all those who have come before us as they live again through us. And because we have sung the songs of those who bonded with humans, even in the days when the human life span was so short that to do so was to embrace death as well, any memory singer knows that hunger and need, as well. To choose between them . . ."

She shook her head slowly, in a gesture the People had borrowed from their human friends, but Golden Voice looked at her serenely.

<Life is choice, Memory Singer. The fact that no one of the People has ever made the choices I have made, or lived the life I have lived, cannot change that, and if there have been times of pain and loss, there has also been joy and love.> Her prehensile tail reached out, wrapping itself gently but tightly about Laughs Brightly. <I have Laughs Brightly, and our kittens—yes, and his human, as well, for Dances on Clouds has love enough for a hand of hands of People, and just as Laughs Brightly, she and the humans who follow her have become as much my clan as ever Sun Leaf Clan was. Perhaps that is the reason one who might have been a memory singer bonded with a human yet also mated.>

<What do you mean?> Wind of Memory asked intently, and Golden Voice regarded her levelly for several long breaths. Branch Leaper tensed and felt the same reactions from the other members of his clan—especially Songstress and Echo of Time—as they tasted her mind glow. There was deep serenity in it, despite her youth, but also an inflexible determination, unyielding as the duralloy of the metal knives and axes the humans had given the People. It was not challenge. It went beyond that, like some irresistible natural force—like the wind that toppled even the mightiest picketwood or crown oak. He had no idea what lay behind it, yet at that moment, he felt almost sorry for the elders and memory singers of Sun Leaf Clan who must have encountered something just like it when they tried to force her to become a memory singer herself.

<I mean that the time to end our great deception has come, Memory Singer,> Golden Voice said very quietly. <It is time and past time for us to reveal our full cleverness to the humans.>

<No!> It was not one of the memory singers, but rather Bark Master, second of Bright Water's elders, whose mind voice shouted the instant denial. All eyes turned to him, but he did not retreat. <Sings Truly herself told us we must conceal our full cleverness, and she was right,> he said stubbornly. <It was the path of wisdom to hide it until we had learned more of the humans, and it is the path of wisdom now. We are protected by the human rangers. They aid us in the hard times of the cold turnings, their healers have conquered many of the illnesses which once came among us and killed, we have learned much from them yet remained always ourselves. We may no longer distrust them, yet we do not truly know how they will respond when they discover that we have deceived them for so long. And even if that were not true, it would be foolish to unsettle and change everything between our two peoples when we already have all that we might desire!>

<With all respect, Elder, you are wrong,> Golden Voice said, and in that moment her mind voice held the regal assurance which echoed still in the mind songs of Sings Truly herself. She was perhaps a quarter of Bark Master's age and the newest member of his clan, to boot, yet she faced his vehemence with neither trepidation nor personal challenge, and Branch Leaper felt a deep respect for her—and an even deeper envy of Laughs Brightly.

<Why so, sister-of-choice?> Wind of Memory asked. She alone tasted almost as calm as Golden Voice, yet she watched the younger female unblinkingly, her concentrated gaze a pale reflection of the intensity with which she tasted the other's mind glow and mind voice.

<Because it is no longer necessary . . . and because we are no longer kittens, Senior Singer,> Golden Voice told her. <There is no need to learn still more of the humans. Surely you, who have sung the songs of every human who has ever been adopted, of every one of the People who has ever returned to tell of all he and his person have seen and done, must see that. You know the name of every human—their human names, as well as those the People have given—who has ever been adopted. You know the full songs of their lives, of how they have protected and kept our secrets . . . and of how the other humans with whom we share this world have also learned to protect and accept us. We might hide our full cleverness forever, but if we do so only to insure the safety of the People while we learn more of the humans, then we have hidden it long enough. If we are never to reveal the truth, then we must find a better reason than fear of the humans' reaction, Senior Singer.>

Wind of Memory considered that, then flicked her ears in agreement.

<More than that, though,> Golden Voice continued, <great changes are about to befall our humans—and through them, us—on all sides. They are at war—> she used the human word, for the mind voices of the People had no matching reference, yet all who heard it knew of what she spoke <—with an enemy with far more nests, far more people, than our humans. Laughs Brightly and I have met some of those enemies.> The tail wrapped about her mate tightened again, and his tail slipped comfortingly about her, as well. <I lost my human to them, and Laughs Brightly has lost those he cared for deeply, and who Dances on Clouds loved, to them, as well, and some of them are truly evil, in a way few of the People could ever fully understand. Most are not, of course. Indeed, the mind glows of many of those we have met might equally well have been the mind glows of our own humans. Yet Laughs Brightly and I have also seen the weapons they use and tasted the fear of many of the humans—of the enemy humans, as well as our own—of where this war may lead. It may come even here, for our humans are dreadfully outnumbered. They are brave and determined, and I believe they fight much better than their enemies, yet not the bravest heart may hold back the ice days or forbid the mud days' floods. Their weapons can kill even worlds, Senior Singer—accidentally, as well as deliberately. I know our humans would die before they willingly permitted such weapons to be used here, for this is their world, as well, and they would protect us as fiercely as they do their own younglings. Yet still it may happen, and what would become of Bright Water Clan, or the memory songs of its People, if such a weapon should strike here, in this central nesting place?>

A cold mental silence answered her, and Branch Leaper felt that same icy chill at his own heart. He had never even considered such a possibility, yet he knew now that he should have. He, too, had heard the memory songs, tasted the very mind glows, of Laughs Brightly and his human as they faced the terrible weapons Golden Voice had just described. And in those songs, Laughs Brightly had always known that such terrible human tools might be unleashed even here on the world of the People. Yet somehow the connection had never made itself for Branch Leaper, for such devices were too utterly beyond his own ken. And as he tasted the stunned silence about him, he knew he was not alone in that. That perhaps even the memory singers themselves had not recognized—or admitted to themselves that they did—the implications of all Laughs Brightly and others like him from other clans had reported to their memory singers.

<There is nothing the People can do to prevent such disaster,> Golden Voice went on with that same terrible, unflinching honesty and awareness, <and as I have said, our own humans would face death willingly to prevent it for us. Yet that does not mean that we should be blind to the chance that it might befall us despite all they can do.>

<Yet you yourself have just pointed out that there is nothing we can do to avert it,> Bark Master pointed out. His mind voice was no longer stubborn. It was half-stunned and frightened, yet his response was not one of simple panic. He spoke as a clan elder, one whose responsibility it was to recognize the dangers which beset Bright Water and to avert them . . . and who knew now that there was a danger he could not avert, however hard he might seek to do so.

<No, but we may take steps to allow for the consequences,> Golden Voice told him. <That is one reason I say that it is time to end our deception. The People live on only one world; our humans claim three as their own nest places, with many others as the nest places of their allies and friends. I believe it is time that the People also spread their nest places wider, sought ranges on other worlds, as well as this one of our own.>

<Other worlds?!> Bark Master stared at her in disbelief, and she flicked her ears with just a hint of impatience.

<Clan Elder, it is past time for such a decision,> she said firmly, with all the authority of the memory singer she had never become. <We have known for hands of hands of turnings that those worlds are there. Laughs Brightly and I have visited many of them, tasted their air and their water, smelled their soil, climbed their trees. Not all would make good homes for the People, and even many of those which would would not allow us to live there as we have always lived here. We would be forced to learn new ways and new things, to adjust our customs, perhaps even change many of them completely. Yet to live is to make decisions and to grow; to refuse decisions or to grow is to die inside, even if the body lives on. The People have always been slow to change, yet we have always known that change cannot be avoided . . . and that change is not always evil or wrong simply because it is change. More than that, we have our humans to help us. Do you think, after all that we have learned of them, all the rules they have made among their own kind to protect us, that they would not help us in this?>

<But they could not help us as they always have in the past,> Wind of Memory pointed out, raising a true-hand to gesture at the dense green leaves and broad picketwood branches about them. <If we must change our ways and our customs on those other worlds, we could no longer live as the People have always lived, or apart from our humans.>

<We could not,> Golden Voice agreed. <That is one of the great reasons I say it is time to drop our deception. If we would live on the other worlds of our humans—or even on still more distant worlds—then we must weave new patterns with all humans. We must allow them to realize how clever we truly are, and even those of the People who do not bond to humans must learn to live among them. Not simply as we do now, when any of the People may visit any human nesting place for a time and then return to our own ranges, but permanently, and that may be hard. And in time, I suspect, we must also find ways to do things that they need, so that they will learn to treat us as our bonded humans do—as partners whose skills and work are valued, and not simply as kittens to be protected, as so many other humans now see us. We have permitted ourselves to be seen so for too long, Memory Singer. Indeed, there are times when I wonder if we have not come to see ourselves so.>

Wind of Memory began to reply hotly, then stopped, and Branch Leaper tasted her sense of surprise as she made herself consider Golden Voice's words and found a bitter strain of truth behind them.

<Yet there is still another reason why I believe this is the time to consider such a move,> Golden Voice went on into the silence. <You of Bright Water know even better than I how for many generations the People have sought out the humans of Death Fang's Bane Clan and bonded to them . . . and why. Many have been chosen from other human clans, especially that of their High Clan, yet again and again the people have chosen from Death Fang's Bane and its daughter clans. And why was that, Memory Singer?>

<Because they are so much less mind-blind than most humans,> Wind of Memory replied.

<Exactly,> Golden Voice said. <Oh, there are other reasons, as well. They are a good clan, one whose people have always cared deeply for the world we share and for the People. There have been those with whom no person would bond, of course, for they are no more perfect than the People are, but for the most part, those of Death Fang's Bane Clan have been humans any person might be proud to bond to. Yet the true reason we have chosen so many of them has been the brilliance of their mind glows and the strength of the bonds we have made with them. I bonded to one not of that clan—> again that burst of curiously serene, bottomless sorrow flowed from her, but this time without the jagged, knifelike edges <—and I will never regret it. Yet I tell you that Laughs Brightly's bond with Dances on Clouds is as much stronger than was mine with Hunter of Stars as a memory singer's voice is stronger than that of a hunter or a scout. I do not think Dances on Clouds realizes even now how much like one of the People she is, for she tastes Laughs Brightly's mind glow almost as one of the People would. You who have sung their songs know this, but you know only what Laughs Brightly has been able to tell you of it, while I have seen it as another looking in through my own bond to him, and I tell you that Dances on Clouds can actually hear his thoughts.>

<That is impossible,> one of the other elders said flatly. <Humans are mind-blind. Even Darkness Foe could hear the thoughts of a memory singer only because hands of hunters and scouts aided her!>

<I do not think Darkness Foe truly heard her thoughts even then,> Golden voice said calmly. <I have listened to that song many times, and I believe that he tasted her song without truly hearing it. But Dances on Clouds does hear Laughs Brightly. Not as one of the People would, and certainly not as clearly. I do not even think she hears with the same senses the People use. It is almost as if . . . as if her ability to taste his mind glow is so strong that his mind voice flows to her through the same link.> She turned and looked up at her mate, and he flicked his ears.

<Golden Voice is correct, I think,> he said. <Dances on Clouds—> the tenderness and love in his mind voice flowed through them all like a gentle wind as he named his human <—does not hear me as the People would, does not hear my thoughts as thoughts. I do not know precisely how she does hear them, for it had not occurred to me until the last few hands of turnings that she might do so at all.>

Mental ear flicks of assent flowed through his audience, for this was Bright Water Clan, and all of its people had heard the memory songs of how Laughs Brightly had made Dances on Clouds taste the mind glow of the evil-doers from whom she and he had saved the elders of Dances on Cloud's other world from murder.

<Since that time, she has learned to taste the mind glows of other humans more and more clearly,> Laughs Brightly went on. <She does not yet realize it, but she no longer truly needs her bond to me even for that. I believe our bond makes it easier, yet she has reached out several times with her own mind, without even realizing that she has done it.> He cocked his head, and the other People tasted his pride and wonder at what his human had achieved. <At the same time, she and I have come closer than any others of our kind—closer even than Swift Striker and Darkness Foe, I believe—to truly speaking mind-to-mind. It is difficult to describe, for human minds are so different from those of the People. As Golden Voice says, she does not hear as we hear one another. Rather it is almost as it is with a very young kitten, when thought and feeling have not truly separated one from another. I am still exploring this new ability, still seeking ways to strengthen it, and since mating with Golden Voice, my bond with Dances on Clouds seems to have grown still stronger and deeper.> He sent a wave of love and tenderness to his mate, but his eyes met those of his clan's elders. <We have come far, and thanks to the humans' "Prolong," we will have many hands of turnings yet to come still further. I do not know that other humans and people will find the same ability, but if even a single bonding can make the final step and truly hear one another, communicate as clearly as People with People or human with human . . .>

His mind voice trailed off, and Golden Voice took up the discussion once more.

<There are other reasons to act now, of course, just as I am certain many among us can find reasons why we should not change our ways. Yet I ask you all to consider this. Not only do Dances on Clouds and Laughs Brightly share a deeper, clearer bond than any other of the People has ever forged with a human, but she has become a great elder among humans. Not as great as Soul of Steel, perhaps, for she does not head our humans' High Clan, but a great elder upon her other world nonetheless. She is the branch by which the People might cross into that other world, for she has the authority to make us welcome, and her love for Laughs Brightly—and for me and for our kittens—burns like a crown fire at her heart. She will help and aid us if we ask, and she and those who follow her will protect us even as Death Fang's Bane Clan has always guarded and protected the People here.>

She fell silent, and a great stillness seemed to hover in the central nesting place of Bright Water Clan. It lingered endlessly, and then Wind of Memory shook herself like a kitten caught in the rain. She turned and gazed about her at the assembled elders and all the other adults who listened and watched, then looked back to Golden Voice.

<You have wasted no time setting a hunter among the tree hoppers of your new clan, sister-of-choice!> she observed in a mind voice made of mingled worry, resignation, hope, and deep amusement. <And you have done it before we even offered you and Laughs Brightly a nest to share while you are among us! Perhaps Sun Leaf Clan is more fortunate than it knows to have avoided so, ah, energetic a memory singer!>

<I have often thought my elders were more fortunate than they realized . . . in many ways, Senior Singer,> Golden Voice replied so demurely that even many of those she had shocked most deeply bleeked with laughter.

<Perhaps they are, and perhaps they are not,> Wind of Memory said much more seriously. <Yet I do not jest when I say that what you have proposed to us this day may be even more important—or dangerous—to the People than anything Sings Truly herself ever proposed. It is certainly the most important thing anyone has suggested since Sings Truly, and I suppose I am pleased and proud that you have brought it to the clan from whence she and Climbs Quickly sprang.>

<Even if Golden Voice is correct,> Crooked Tail, another of the elders, put in, <it need not mean that we overset all the old ways in a single day, Senior Singer. If we follow her suggestion, surely we would send only a small number of people to Dances on Cloud's other world to begin with. No more than a hand or two, at most.>

<Do not deceive yourself, Crooked Tail,> Wind of Memory replied. <Yes, we would start with only a very few People. At least one memory singer must go, since—> she darted a humorous glance at Golden Voice <—I have no intention of attempting to convince a mated female, with kittens of her own, who has also bonded to a human, to do what all of Sun Leaf Clan's elders could not convince an untried kitten to do so many turnings ago! And there must be hunters and scouts . . . three hands, at least, I would say. But it is not the numbers that matter in this—not truly. What matters is the change. I would not think it would come immediately, for I would still advise moving with caution, yet such a move would require the People to show our true cleverness to the humans. And that will change the entire relationship between all humans and all People, everywhere, forever.>

<You speak truly, Senior Singer,> Golden Voice agreed. <Yet I will add this. For all that Sings Truly counseled caution, she always knew the day must come when the People took this step. I think she might still agree with you that we must not move with reckless haste . . . but I also think she would be astonished that it has taken us this long to come this far.>

<So what, precisely, do you recommend, sister-of-choice?> Wind of Memory asked in a mind voice from which all hostility had faded.

<It is customary for a mother of the People who has bonded to a human to foster her kittens with her clan,> Golden Voice replied. <I would not do that. Rather, Laughs Brightly and I will take them to Dances on Clouds' other world with us. And when we do, as Wind of Memory has suggested, we will take others with us to help teach and raise them . . . and to open a new door to the humans.>

<It is a bold plan . . . and a risky one,> Bark Master said slowly. <It will not be decided here and now, sister-of-choice, and it does not concern only our clan. We must consult with the other clans and their elders.>

<I understand. But I also understand that, as they have so often, the other clans will follow the lead of Bright Water. It was this clan which opened the first door; if it chooses to open the next, it will not be alone in that decision long.>

<Perhaps not,> Bark Master conceded, <yet it would be discourteous, as well as dangerous, to move in this without so much as seeking their opinions. It will take some days, at least two or three hands of them.>

<Which will be amply soon,> Golden Voice told him. <Dances on Clouds will not leave for considerably longer than that. There will be time for much discussion.>

<Indeed,> Laughs Brightly put in, his pride in his mate burning bright in his mind glow as he tucked an arm about her. <But whatever the decision, Golden Voice and I, and our kittens, will leave with Dances on Clouds.> There was not as much shock or surprise at hearing such an announcement from a scout as there might have been in other clans. This was Bright Water Clan, after all . . . and its elders knew Laughs Brightly of old.

<We understand that, Laughs Brightly,> Wind of Memory told him now, her mind voice and mind glow rich with resigned laughter, <but at least allow us the illusion that the vote of all the rest of the People in the world matters just a bit!>

<Oh, of course, Senior Singer!> Laughs Brightly assured her with a bleek of amusement. <It would never do for us to be impolite, after all, now would it?>

* * *

Honor Harrington looked up from her book viewer as the oldest 'cat door on Sphinx opened. Her great-great-great-etc.-grandmother Stephanie and Lionheart had first used that door hundreds of T-years before, and she smiled as the two latest treecats to use it flowed through it.

"Hi, Stinker!" she said, setting down her mug of cocoa. "Have a nice visit with the folks?"

"Bleek!" Nimitz agreed, flowing across the floor to her with an air of almost unbearable complacency. He looked like someone who had just discovered he owned an entire celery patch of his own, Honor thought, and shook her head with a grin.

"He really can be sort of full of himself, can't he?" she asked the smaller, dappled treecat who had accompanied him, and Samantha bleeked an agreement of her own. She crossed to the couch and hopped lightly up on it to peer down into the basket at Honor's side. Four adorable balls of fluffy fur slept deeply in it—one of them snoring faintly—and Samantha bleeked again, softer and more gently, and reached out a wiry, true-hand to stroke one of her children tenderly.

"I promised to keep an eye on them," Honor told her, reaching out to caress Samantha's ears in turn, and Nimitz's mate turned to gaze up at her with brilliant green eyes. For a moment they looked so serious and thoughtful Honor blinked in surprise, but then Samantha seemed to shake herself. She turned away from her sleeping children and flowed into Honor's lap, curling herself into a neat circle, and Nimitz leapt up beside his mate and his person.

Samantha buried her nose against Honor and gave a huge sigh, then closed her eyes and began to buzz a slow, deep purr as Honor's long fingers stroked her fluffy coat. Within less than five minutes, the purr had faded into slow, deep breathing, and Honor gazed down at the utterly relaxed, silken warmth so trustingly asleep in her lap. Then she looked at Nimitz, curled neatly beside her on the couch, and shook her head.

"Look at her!" she said softly, and chuckled. "Sleepy as she is, you'd think she'd been out changing the world or something!"

"Bleek!" Nimitz agreed, and then rested his own chin on his person's thigh beside Samantha's, and the soft buzz of his purr rose over his mate's slow breathing as Honor chuckled again and laid her hand on his head.

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